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cottonwood

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Oregon Territory is wet leaves, soft soil.  History has not reached it yet.

Otis lies down on the forest floor, his head on a bed of pine needles.  You lie beside him.

 

His hands, which twitched and tugged—at tree branches, nettles, in and out of his pockets—finally go still.  How gentle, those hands.  They carried flowers into your cabin, that second day you met him.  Lilies, or maybe lilacs, you don’t remember.  You remember purple, soft purple, and the way they filled the room with sweetness, as though a rainstorm had come through and swept the place clean.

How gentle, those hands, and how nimble, to dip the batter into the pan, to keep steady as it sizzles golden-brown, to dip the honey, layer it into every crevice.  Biscuits, covered in amber, as though pulled up from eons beneath the earth, new each morning.

New each morning, the way he kisses you, coming through the doorway as you stumble in still half-asleep after feeding the chickens.  You never get enough sleep these days, but he still glows soft in the sunlight, and his hands, as they fold the batter into the pan, do not falter.  And his hands, as they cradle your face, do not falter.

He always asks, before he leans in, and you always nod.  And he smiles, and then—the scratch of his beard, the honey-sweet of his lips, the warmth of his tongue—sleep falls away as you grip his waist with your hands, shift the angle to taste deeper.  Sleep falls away, chickens and coins and calculations all fall away.  The world is warm sunlight and his hands as you pull apart to breathe, his thumbs at your cheeks, rubbing inscriptions into your skin, his gentle smile and his murmur, Good morning.

You never saw his hands so careful as on the first day Chief Factor asked for a biscuit.  He took his time: turning the pastry, lifting it golden-brown for the Chief to see, dipping the honey in the crevices.  You told a customer once that the biscuits were made with a secret Chinese ingredient, and that’s bullshit, of course, the secret is the way he moves his hands.  Milking the cow, and stirring the butter, and coating the honey.

The Chief stood transfixed and you hated him, suddenly—hated him with a fire you hadn’t known since age nine first arriving in Canton.  How dare he marvel at those gentle hands?  The Chief may own the cow, but this—this man, his sweetness, his dreams—he is yours.

You wonder now, your skin growing cool in the damp leaves, could you have refused the Chief?  Could you have closed up shop and taken the money from the cottonwood—not enough for a hotel in San Francisco, no, but that city is crowded anyway, too much competition, too much smoke, not enough sunshine.  The money is enough for a homestead down south, in California.  Chickens can be bought with silver and beads, yes, and wood can be chopped, and berries can be harvested, and even a cow, perhaps, can be persuaded to take a chance—but money could not yield his hands, whisking the batter, and the soft way he looks at you.

He looks at you as though you are the river, running to the sea, and he would do anything to follow, to simply stay afloat.  Perhaps he would look at you like that, as you ran together through the forest after refusing the Chief—ducking branches and crossing streams, boots keeping his feet warm, escaping the blood of history just for now, just for a few weeks, until the farm got going.  And perhaps when you stopped for the night, the sun dipping heavy in the sky and the forest growing loud with owls and crickets, you would light a fire and he would forage for mushrooms.  And he would reach into his pocket and pull out the last biscuit, the biscuit that the Chief did not own.  He would tear it in half, and offer you a share—he would watch as the pastry melted, light on your tongue.

He would, he would.  If only you had not been so selfish.

 

He lies down on the forest floor, his head on a bed of pine needles.  You lie beside him.  You feel it, as he begins to sink, and you press closer—you take his hand.

You know, as surely as you know that whiskey is two silver coins and a pickle is three, that you will not see the sun rise again.